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The origins of tattoo culture in Africa

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Other African body altering traditions involve extreme forms of body piercing

The use of tattoos is recorded to have begun thousands of years ago and its history is as varied, colourful and diverse as the people who carry them.
The origin of the word ‘tattoo’ is believed to have two major derivations; the first is from the Polynesian word “ta” which means striking something and the second is the Tahitian word “tatau” which means ‘to mark something’.

Tattooing in Africa
The first evidence of tattoos leads back to the mummies in Egypt. The oldest tattoo was found on the mummy of Amunet, a priestess of the Goddess Hathor, during 2160-1994 BC. The mummy’s simple tattoos were parallel lines on her arms, legs, and an elliptical pattern below her navel. Interestingly, no male mummies found in Egypt had their body adorned with tattoos. Egyptologists, today, are of the opinion that these designs symbolized fertility and rejuvenation in women. However, male mummies that have been found in other parts of Africa, such as Libya, have tattoos of images relating to sun worship, on their body.

In the tomb of Seti I, dating back to 1300 BC, tattoos symbolizing Neith, a Fierce Goddess, who led warriors into battle, were found on men. The first known tattoo of a person was discovered on Nubian female mummies, dating to 400 BC. The tattoo image portrayed the God of Sex and overseer of orgies, Bes. Another form of early body ornamentation was ‘cicatrisation’. The word cicatrisation was derived from the French word, cicatrices, which mean ‘scar’. This form of body ornamentation was common among the darker-skinned people of Africa so that their original colour of skin would not show.

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